Feature

Afterwords – Alien: Isolation

by Jeff Marchiafava on Nov 14, 2014 at 02:00 PM

Alien is an illustrious film series with a less impressive track record in video games. Eschewing the action-oriented approach most developers take with the series, The Creative Assembly honed in on the tense, claustrophobic atmosphere of the original 1979 hit for Alien: Isolation. We spoke with Alien: Isolation director Alistair Hope about game's distinct pace, fan reception, creating Amanda Ripley, and much more.

The last game based on the franchise, Aliens: Colonial Marines, was skewered by critics and fans alike. Did that reception put any added pressure on you or affect your approach to the series?
The vision for the game was really clear from the start. We wanted you to experience what it would be like to encounter and survive against Ridley Scott's original Alien; to make a game about survival and not about killing. So it was clear from the start we wanted to take Alien games in a completely different direction to any that had come before. We've been working on this game for about four years and obviously we were aware of the development and subsequent release of Colonial Marines. After the game came out, we saw a lot of people asking for a scary Alien game, a game where just one Alien could be a challenge...and that was exactly what we were making; that was massively reassuring. From a creative point of view we knew what we wanted to make and that didn't change at any point during development.

Alien: Isolation presents players with a very specific and atypical gameplay experience compared to other first-person games and survival horror games. Was there ever a desire to make the gameplay more accommodating in hopes of appealing to a larger player base?
Games based in the Alien universe had previously been inspired by the James Cameron experience: one of pulse rifles, marines, and many Aliens. It felt like nobody had tapped into the original movie, where one Alien could pose a significant threat to the player. We wanted to create a new Alien game experience, based on the core values of the first film. To make a new, definitive survival horror based on the original survival horror. What was interesting was that whenever we were in a position to show anyone what we were doing, and for many years we weren't able to tell anyone what we were making, they became really excited and wanted more, so it felt, from the start, like there was an audience out there hungry for something new.

Reception to the game also seems polarized; either the gameplay clicks and people love it, or they find it too slow or frustrating. What were your hopes going into launch, and has critical and fan reception lived up to your expectations?
I think creating a new experience is inherently risky but that's why we make the games we make; to create new experiences. We're hugely excited by the sheer volume of articles and commentary that have been fantastically positive. It's humbling to see how strong those responses have been in support of what we've made and perhaps that's a sign that we've actually created something which has moved the genre forward.

The save system has been criticized for sometimes causing players to replay long segments after dying. What do you think the benefits are to this system compared to strictly having checkpoints or a more traditional manual save system? Would you make any changes in hindsight?
For me, a core component of horror is in "small victories," small achievements that allow the player to breath again. Tiny events or moments where, if the player just manages to keep doing what they're doing they might just ultimately make it out alive. We discussed a number of save options early in development but we kept coming back to the manual save points as it really supported the horror, which is fantastic. An element we usually take for granted is actually key to the experience. Saving becomes part of the fabric of the horror. If you pushed me, I'd probably have to say, in hindsight that perhaps some of the save point locations could be seen to be a little challenging, but having said that, has saving ever felt so sweet?

What do you think are the main personality traits of Amanda Ripley, and how did you try to capture them in her portrayal and performance?
In Amanda we had this really amazing character to explore. She is Ellen Ripley's daughter, so she had the potential to exhibit some of the same characteristics as her mother – she shares the same DNA, but at the same time has her own personality. She is a character who has been searching for answers as to her mother's disappearance her whole life and when Weyland-Yutani invite her to join the crew being sent to retrieve the Nostromo flight recorder she finally has the opportunity to "close the book." Of course, events mean that things don't work out as planned and she gets to confront the horror that separated her from her mother in the first place. I think Amanda goes on her own journey and she changes as the world around her, and those around her, influence her decisions. She embarks on the mission for very personal, even understandably selfish reasons and ends the story prepared to sacrifice herself to save others.

Ellen Ripley is one of the most iconic characters in the horror genre. How did you balance capturing some of her traits in Amanda, while not making her seem like a carbon copy of her mother?
Absolutely right. Ellen Ripley is the heart of Alien, she is a totally unique, iconic, and pioneering character and we wanted Amanda to mirror some of the same traits. I think one of Ellen's main characteristics is her clarity of thought under pressure combined with her incredible ability to keep pushing to survive against all odds. To keep making the right decisions, to keep fighting to survive. Whereas the rest of the Nostromo crew could be said to die by their flaws, Ellen's "flaw" – her focus and discipline turns out to be what saves her. Amanda has many of the same traits but is her own character, her own personality. I think we wanted to push them further. For example, she starts out a little more cold than her mother, she doesn't hide her anger at the Company. At the same time, her strength of character also shows through, the determination and the focus to get answers.

Coming Up Next: We discuss in-game callbacks to the original film, criticisms over the length of the campaign, and how the xenomorph thinks for itself...

I enjoyed the numerous callbacks to the Alien films and playing through some iconic moments inspired by the movies, but as a result some of the plot points are predictable for Alien fans. How do you balance fan expectations with creating a new and original experience?
We always knew we had potentially two audiences. The first was the audience with a deep knowledge of the universe and who had seen the films, in particular the original Alien. We wanted to give that audience the opportunity to return to the roots of the series and for the first time to really return to Ridley Scott's haunted house in space and experience what it would be like to encounter and survive against the original Alien. The other audience would be those who were coming to the universe completely fresh, where Alien: Isolation would represent their introduction to this unique franchise. So we wanted to include elements that were distinctly signature and at the same time expand the world, bringing new components into play. For example, the game takes place in a completely new location overseen by Seegson, a wholly new company. This really helped us move away from everything in the story being Weyland-Yutani and introduce new characters and themes.

The camera is positioned a lot higher than in most first-person games. Even though the perspective is more realistic, some players find it distracting. What factors went into this decision?
As like many of the elements in the game, we took our cues from the original movie which has this really great pressure-cooker feel as the crew inhabits the claustrophobic environment of the Nostromo. The original set is famous for being physically built for the actors to move around inside and many of our environment metrics were taken directly from the production archive material Fox provided at the start of development. So to answer your question, the height of our sets is quite low to help give this claustrophobic feeling. Amanda isn't particularly tall but she, like the rest of the cast are inside this man-made, believable (if slightly uncomfortable) feeling environment, which again all feeds into the horror.

The biggest criticism lodged at the game is the length; most reviewers felt it was too long. Do you think the game would've been more potent as a shorter experience? Have you heard the same criticisms from players?
We give the player as much choice as possible, and how quickly a player progresses through the world is down to their skill and the choices they make. We wanted players to feel like they had been on a journey and had overcome and survived the sustained threat of being underpowered and underprepared to confront the obstacles being thrown at them. Interestingly when we originally announced at the beginning of 2014, the speculation we saw was that the game could only possibly last a few hours!

You also visit several locations more than once, which I think compounded the criticisms about the game's length. Why did you decide to have players return to areas they already explored?
We wanted the player to feel like Sevastopol was a real place and returning to areas again, sometimes including new or expanded sections of previously visited locations, helps provide the sense that this was a believable world where areas reconnected with familiar or previously explored locations. Often these areas have changed as a result of the story so they're still engaging upon the player's return.

What were the goals and priorities when developing the xenomorph's A.I.? 
From the outset, we wanted to re-Alien the Alien. To make a game where encountering just one Alien creature could be scary and offer a new meaningful interaction to the player. We wanted to restore the Alien as the ultimate killer and a creature that commanded the player's respect. But we realized early on that in order to achieve our goal we could not script or control the Alien's behavior. If the player knew what the Alien was going to do then any fear would be lost and the tension would evaporate. So we took a completely new approach whereby the Alien would use its senses to track the player down. So the Alien is looking and listening for the player. This makes the creature dynamic and reactive as it responds to the player's actions and the world around it. This also means that no two playthroughs are the same, which for me is the magic of the game. It's very much a single-player experience, but even though all players start in the same place – and hopefully survive to end in the same place – the journey they have is unique to them. This also makes it hugely entertaining to watch as well as play. When we took the game to San Diego Comic Con we had a large crowd, all day, every day, simply watching players trying to survive against the Alien. They would stand, or even sit, in the middle of the convention show floor for 30-40 minutes watching on a large screen as new players, every three minutes, would try and survive against the Alien. Same map, same Alien, but each player's attempt was different and entertaining to watch. It felt like we had created something really special.

Do you see Alien: Isolation as a one-off game? Or would you like to turn it into a series?
We said it when we announced the game. Alien: Isolation is the Alien game we've always wanted to play and I think we've demonstrated the team's deep passion and commitment to delivering a new type of Alien game experience. I also like to think, if you've beaten the game, that there are still some questions left unanswered...

For more on Alien: Isolation, read our review, gameplay tips, and DLC impressions. Make sure to also check out our bonus coverage from Game Informer's recent Horror Issue.